‘Beautiful energy’: Hōʻike Night for the ages at 60th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival
April 13, 2023, 7:51 AM HST
* Updated April 14, 3:26 PM
The hottest ticket in Hilo town Wednesday night was at Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium, and those fortunate enough to have one were treated to an exclusive feast for the eyes, ears and soul.
The historic and much-anticipated 60th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival officially kicked off at the Big Island stadium with a Hōʻike Night for the ages.
At times raucous and upbeat while at other moments reverent and introspective, the three-hour, non-competitive display and exhibition of hula and Hawaiian culture showcased and celebrated the past — while embracing the future.
The line to get in formed hours early and snaked around to the back of the stadium, from the front entrance to the Butler Building and Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. The venue was teeming, inside and out, with people as the crowd of 4,000-plus volunteers, dancers, kumu and spectators prepared for the spectacle.
No matter where you looked, it was a veritable fashion show. People were decked out in their aloha best, wearing shirts, dresses, skirts and other threads that featured every color of the rainbow and a myriad of prints. There were lauhala (weaved hala tree leaves) hats, several varieties of flowers and greenery behind ears and in hairdos, and oh so many lei.
That was just in the audience. On stage, the swirling skirts and hula costumes came in just as many colors and featured even more lei and other adornments. Some performers even changed outfits between dances. The long, flowing dresses worn by the several past Miss Aloha Hula winners and contestants who again graced the Merrie Monarch stage Wednesday night were breathtaking.
The night’s performances featured Hālau O Kekuhi, founded by Hawaiian cultural icon and the stadium’s namesake Edith Kanaka‘ole. Several of her great-great-grandchildren and Sig Zane, an Aloha attire designer, performed with the hālau.
Also performing were musician and Kumu Hula Robert Cazimero’s Hālau Nā Kamalei O LĪlĪlehua and the haumāna of the late Kumu Hula Johnny Lum Ho, delivering a moving tribute to the legend who died last year.
Several special guests added to the fun, including musician Kuana Torres Kahele, singer Mark Yamanaka and entertainer/radio host Kimo Kahoano, who has been the celebrity emcee of Merrie Monarch since 1981.
Eyes were glued to the stage throughout the evening. Deafening cheers filled the stadium many times, especially during dances that featured kūpuna and former students and Merrie Monarch participants. At other times, the masses remained silent, in awe at the power of the performance.
There were moments where you’d almost forget to breathe because you were so captivated, quietly watching, not being able to wipe the smile off your face. There were others where your heart would beat along with the rhythm of pahu (drum), ‘uli ‘uli (gourds filled with pebbles, shells or seeds that rattle and are adorned with feathers) or other hula instruments.
When hālau would stomp on the stage, thunderous booms would reverberate through the stadium. Other moments, their steps were soft and nearly silent. It all depended on the story they were telling — words were not required. That was even more the case during the tribute to “Uncle Johnny.”
The intensity of performance was obvious. The chests of dancers heaved as they caught their breath while sweat trickled down their brows. It was even more pronounced as former Miss Aloha Hula winners sat in the middle of the stage and conveyed their tales using only their hands and faces.
When the audience harmonized with the singers on stage, including while Makoa Kalai sang “Hawai‘i Pono‘i,” it gave you chicken skin.
The level of excitement was as intense and energizing as the performances and tributes themselves. Hawai‘i County Councilwoman Jenn Kagiwada said it was even exciting just standing in line, waiting to get into the stadium.
“To see everybody out and here, it feels like home,” she said.
There was what Cazimero called a “beautiful energy” that permeated the air at the stadium: “This performance tonight, this is for us,” he said.
“We’ll forever have this memory,” Hōʻike emcee Ku‘ehu Mauga said.
The 60th Annual Merrie Monarch Festival continues tonight with the first round of hula competition featuring the individual Miss Aloha Hula contest.